Visualisation: Neuron Foundation

Czech-Slovak Team Uncovers One of the Oldest Mayan Cities in Guatemala

A Czech-Slovak team of archaeologists, working in the Peten department in the north of Guatemala, has discovered evidence of one of the oldest Mayan cities ever found, using modern technologies. The city dates back almost 3,000 years, according to a press release today from the Neuron Foundation, which financially supported the expedition.

The archaeologists used the results of aerial photography in the preparation of the expedition. During the subsequent excavations, they uncovered palaces, statues, remains of rituals, astronomical observatories, and other objects. Their findings will help uncover crucial and previously unknown phases of Mayan history, the Neuron representatives said.

Czech explorer Ladislav Silhan and Slovak Milan Kovac, head of the Center for Mesoamerican Studies at Comenius University in Bratislava, led the seven-week expedition last July. The team included Czech archaeologist Sara Polak, who is investigating history with the aid of AI technologies.

The discovered city covered an area of ​​more than seven square kilometres. It flourished between 850 BC and 150 AD and was the centre of the region for about 1,000 years, according to archaeologists.

They have named the city Yax Balam, which means the First Jaguar. The jaguar was a symbol of power in Mayan culture and is associated with the underworld and religion, they said.

“The excavations show that the city is one of the oldest Mayan agglomerations ever,” explained Kovac. “Over the years, it declined and re-developed from the very beginning of Mayan history, the emergence of kingdoms and the first city-states to the so-called Mayan Collapse, which caused the end of this civilization.” 

The expedition documented as many as seven major architectural districts in Yax Balam, in addition to discovering and mapping two other smaller Mayan towns. During its work, the team used AI, neural networks, and digital data from the LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) method of aerial photography.

LiDAR laser technology penetrates below the surface and can render the character of the surface, revealing buildings, palaces and urban complexes. The neural networks next search directly for objects of interest with the aid of selected algorithms, and field excavation and archaeological surveys then confirm the findings, explained the researchers.

Experts are currently evaluating and processing the findings, with the aim of reconstructing the life of the Mayan civilization. Experts in the digitization of cultural heritage from the Czech Technical University (CVUT) in Prague are also involved in the project.

“We have digitally documented the main centres of the discovered city of Yax Balam, which we are now gradually visualising in 3D models,” said Silhan. “Some parts will be further explored and presented to the public using realistic 3D animation. In this way, we will give a realistic view of the life of one of the oldest civilizations in the world.” 

Part of the documentary footage from the project (in Czech).

The Neuron Foundation supports the activities of Czech scientists, searches for new scientific talent, secures student internships at foreign universities, and funds field research with its Neuron Expedition grants.

To date, it has spent CZK 140 million promoting and popularising Czech science, awarded 120 prizes and supported ten scientific expeditions with CZK 5.5 million in total, the foundation said in a press release.

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